Sydney Morning Herald Column

Frida & Diego: Love & Revolution

Published July 8, 2023
Nickolas Muray, 'Frida Kahlo on the bench #5' (1939)

Diego Rivera must have had extraordinary charisma. A fat man who wore his trousers Harry Highpants style, with a face regularly compared to a frog, (even by himself), Rivera was a legendary womaniser. His list of conquests included a long line of celebrated beauties – actresses, artists, writers – they all succumbed to his charm. For Frida Kahlo, his third wife and love of his life, he was God and the devil.

Frida & Diego with monkey, Fulang Chung (1937)

There was a twenty-year age difference between Frida (1907-1954) and Diego (1886-1957), but the attraction was instant and mutual. She was barely out of college, while he was already one of the most celebrated artists in the world. They met at a party in 1928 and married the following year. Soon they would be recognised as the indisputable power couple of modern Mexican art, their every move being recorded in the press, including a divorce in 1938 and remarriage in 1939.

Diego was the big-name act. He had spent a decade in Paris, immersed in the doctrines of Cubism and Communism. Back in Mexico from 1921, he became the figurehead of the Mexican muralist movement, working on a grand scale with breathtaking speed and ambition. In 1931 he became only the second artist to be given a solo exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, after Henri Matisse.

Frida Kahlo, ‘Diego on my mind (Self-portrait as a Tehuana)’, (1943)

In those days Frida, whose devotion to Diego was unswerving, was usually referred to as Señora Rivera, and even “little Frida”. Today, Kahlo is one of the most admired of all artists, the centre of a virtual cult. Diego has not been forgotten and was recently the subject of a major show at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, but it’s Frida who has dominated the global imagination, at least since the publication of Hayden Herrera’s landmark biography of 1983.

Frida & Diego: Love & Revolution, at the Art Gallery of South Australia, is the fourth Kahlo exhibition held in this country since 1990. Like those earlier events in Adelaide, Canberra and Sydney, the bulk of the work comes from the collection of Jacques and Natasha Gelman, two great European collectors who divided their time between Mexico City and New York. The curator of the Gelman Collection, Magda Carranza de Akle, says this is the 64th international show they have held. If that sounds like a lot, it answers only a small percentage of the requests received.

Diego Rivera, ‘Calla lily vendor’ (1943)


The AGSA knew it was necessary to do something special, and they’ve pulled out all stops with a bold exhibition design by local architects, Grieve Gillett, and a large, varied selection of work by Frida, Diego, and their peers. The gallery can rightly claim this is the biggest and best Kahlo exhibition seen in Australia.

The ostensible focus is on context, namely the Mexican Revolution of 1910, and the turbulent decades that followed. There is some historic film footage and works by many artists who will be unfamiliar to local audiences, such as the abstractionists, Carlos Mérida and Gunther Gerzso; caricaturist, Miguel Covarrubias, and painter, María Izquierdo, who blends modernism with folk art traditions in a manner similar to Kahlo.

There are seven extraordinary Tehuana dresses, a facsimile of Frida’s bed, and other items, but it’s the photography that holds the show together, including images by Lola and Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Tina Modotti, Lucienne Bloch, Edward Weston, Martin Munkácsi, and Nickolas Muray – the dashing portrait photographer with whom Kahlo had a passionate affair.

Nickolas Muray, ‘Frida with red ‘Rebozo’ (1939),

It’s easy to imagine a special intimacy in photos such as Frida Kahlo on the bench #5 and Frida with red ‘Rebozo’ (both 1939), in which Muray captures the same direct and disarming gaze one finds in Kahlo’s self-portraits.

That gaze, rather than the Mexican Revolution, is the memory most viewers will take away from this exhibition. Not even in Mexico has there ever been a display with so many images of Frida’s face, in both paintings and photographs. The two classic self-portraits are Diego on my mind (Self-portrait as a Tehuana) and Self-portrait with monkeys. Both date from 1943, a period when Frida and Diego had accepted a new set of ground rules for their marriage. For Frida it meant turning a blind eye to Diego’s serial infidelities as the price of their continuing companionship.

Diego, who once said that sex was just like urinating, was happy to regale Frida with accounts of his carnal exploits. He also encouraged her lesbian affairs, which he found titillating, but turned into a jealous macho when she grew close to another man. “I don’t want to share my toothbrush with anybody”, he complained.

Frida accepted this state of affairs (if you’ll pardon the expression), seeing Diego as a precocious child who always had to have his own way. As revealed in Diego on my mind, he had bored his way into the very core of her consciousness. She thought about him obsessively, worrying he might fall in love with another woman and abandon her.

Kahlo’s psychological agonies were exacerbated by the physical pain that had been part of her life since she contracted polio at the age of 13 and was left with a withered leg. The complete catastrophe came along on 17 September 1925, with the notorious trolley car accident in which she broke her spine and was literally impaled by a metal railing. The details of the incident are so bizarre they have become foundational to her legend. When taken from the wreckage she was naked, covered in blood and powdered gold from a package carried by another pasenger. Her vagina had been pierced from within.

Diego Rivera, ‘Portrait of Natasha Gelman’ (1943)

The injuries Kahlo received would change the way she lived her life. She took up painting in earnest while recovering in bed. Her long Tehuana dresses, elaborate jewellery and hair styles were a way of disguising her broken body by means of flamboyant display. The same might be said about her sexuality, which led her into affairs with men as diverse as the sculptor, Isamu Noguchi, art dealer Heinz Berggruen, and even the aging Leon Trotsky.

This active, positive attitude in the face of adversity is one of the reasons Kahlo has become an iconic figure. She would endure 32 operations and 28 different corsets, often spending months encased in plaster. She was bedridden for the entire year of 1950. Under such circumstances it’s amazing she was able to paint, let alone play the seductress. In both instances she had a point to prove.

Frida Kahlo, ‘Self-portrait with monkeys’ (1943)

The self-portraits are the heart of Kahlo’s work because her view of the world was filtered through layers of pain that demanded she constantly look for reassurance at the confident, magnetic face she saw in the mirror. Her social persona was modelled on these reflections, as an act of theatre in which she defiantly refused to be a victim. The pain was evident, however, in the brutal and bloody subjects of paintings that drew on the iconography of Latin American Catholicism and the Aztec heritage. By embracing the Mexicanidad ethic that sought to establish a distinctive national identity, she set herself apart from the cosmopolitan aspirations of the modernists.

Although Kahlo was courted by the Surrealists, she would eventually reject the invitation, being repulsed by the intellectual posturing of the movement’s generalissimo, André Breton.

It needs be admitted there is a lot more love than revolution in this exhibition, and more Frida than Diego, even though this is the fullest representation of his work ever seen in Australia. Along with major paintings such as Sunflowers, Calla lily vendor, and the glamour portrait of Natasha Gelman reclining on a couch (all 1943), an entire wall has been papered with a scale copy of his Detroit mural of 1932-33 that celebrates labour and industry. To see Diego clearly, it’s essential to understand his achievement as a muralist. If he is now less famous than his wife, it’s partly because feminism has put her on a pedestal and him in the dustbin, but also because her major works are portable in a way that his are not.

Diego Rivera, ‘Detroit Industry’ mural (detail) (1932-33)

Frida’s reputation was rocket-boosted by the Herrera biography, but Diego had his own brilliant chronicle in Bertram Wolfe’s The Fabulous Life of Diego Rivera (1963). The title says it all – and delivers on the promise.

The Riveras are such overwhelming presences in Mexican art we tend to forget they were but one part of a very active generation that thrived in the wake of a Revolution which plunged the country into ten years of political turmoil and exerted an influence for the rest of the century. It’s staggering to chart Frida and Diego’s political turnarounds as they embraced and rejected Trotsky and did the opposite with Stalin.

The star appeal of Frida and Diego means we are unlikely to ever see a show of modern Mexican art that does justice to other major figures such as Orozco, Siqueiros and Tamayo, although each of them makes a fleeting appearance here. One wonders if any touring exhibition could encapsulate the complexities of post-revolutionary Mexico, which are glimpsed in this survey. It’s ironic that the celebrity of two artists who believed so wholeheartedly in the ideals of Communism and Mexicanidad, should stand in the way of a fuller exploration of such topics. Perhaps this is one reason Communism failed, as it’s impossible to get excited about a political abstraction when there is so much drama to be found within the bounds of a single marriage.



Frida & Diego: Love & Revolution

Art Gallery of SA, Adelaide, 24 June – 17 September, 2023


Published in the Sydney Morning Herald,  8 July, 2023